MONEY Shopping

12 Iconic Stores and Restaurants That Are Rapidly Disappearing

RadioShack store in downtown Cincinnati
Al Behrman—AP

A dozen once-ubiquitous retailers and restaurants—places where you probably shopped and dined at as a kid—may soon be shutting their doors.

Moody’s Investors Service said in a report this week that RadioShack is in danger of running out of cash by autumn of 2015, according to Bloomberg News. It’s the latest indication that the struggling chain is doomed, following news in the spring that it planned to close up to 1,100 stores. (Those plans were scaled back to around 200 store closures, but still…) The electronics chain’s difficulties probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the times we live in today. After all, the word “radio” is in the name. Who buys radios anymore?

RadioShack is hardly the only well-known national chain that is flummoxed by the ultra-competitive, rapidly changing modern-day marketplace and shutting locations, among other steps, as a survival tactic. Here are 11 others.

Albertsons
Amid toughening competition in the grocery space—low-cost upstarts, dollar stores, big box all-purpose stores, and online sellers have all stepped up their game—the Albertsons supermarket chain announced earlier this year it would be closing 26 stores, most of them in California. In late July, Albertsons bought Safeway, and the merger is expected to bring about more store closures, most likely ones operating under the Albertsons or Vons brand.

Staples
Quite a lot is riding on the current back-to-school shopping season for Staples. After a subpar fourth quarter last year, it announced it would close as many as 225 stores in 2014, after closing 42 throughout North American in 2013. Declining sales have continued into the first half of 2014, largely due to the widespread consumer “shift to e-retailers, mass merchants and drugstores to buy their office supplies,” as Reuters put it. More closures are inevitable if sales during the all-important back-to-school period aren’t up to snuff—and maybe even if they’re decent, as Staples seems increasingly focused on online sales.

Family Dollar
In April, after yet another report of declining store sales, Family Dollar said it would be shutting 370 locations. Now that rival Dollar Tree is buying Family Dollar, it’s likely that more stores—from one or both of these brands, which often have locations in very close proximity to each other—will disappear.

Quiznos
The toasted sandwich chain peaked sometime in the early ’00s, when it boasted some 5,000 stores around the U.S. Quiznos closed around 2,000 locations during the Great Recession years, not only because household spending budgets shrunk, but also because of increased competition from highly successful Subway and all manner of trendy fast-casual restaurants. The more positive economic climate of recent years hasn’t brought Quiznos back from the brink. The company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. While Quiznos wants to put this all in the past, a trickling of closures continues, such as one planned to take place in Austin in August.

Aeropostale
24/7 Wall Street put Aeropostale on its list of “10 Brands That Will Disappear in 2015,” and some 125 of its stores are set to disappear by the end of the current fiscal year. The company’s sales and stock price have been cratering due to what’s described as a “seismic shift” in teens’ fashion taste.

Abercrombie & Fitch
Similar to Aeropostale, the much-higher priced Abercrombie & Fitch has cited a “challenging retail environment,” especially among teens, as a prime reason for declining sales—and why it is being forced to close dozens of stores. The overpriced merchandise and the fat-shaming comments of its CEO probably haven’t helped either.

Toys R Us
The continued shift to online shopping, combined with a shift among consumers away from toys and more toward gadgets, has had the toy store giant in a funk for years. To cope with declining sales, there have been thousands of layoffs at the retail and administrative levels, and some expect store closures at any moment. Overall, things look grim. “There is a 50-50 chance the company can survive,” Howard Davidowitz, chairman of the retail consulting firm Davidowitz & Associates, told the The Record in New Jersey, home of Toys R Us’s headquarters. “I’m not saying they are finished. I would not say that. But there is a limited time, given the debt level they have, for this business to get fixed.”

TCBY
Once 1,500 franchises strong, TCBY has closed two-thirds of its locations over the years. TCBY has tried many things to kickstart the business—Greek fro-yo, sharing space with sister brand Mrs. Fields Cookies—but some think that TCBY is likely to suffer the same fate as Crumbs, the trendy cupcake chain that recently shut down.

Barnes & Noble, J.C. Penney, Sears
The decline, and perhaps impending death, of these three iconic, old-timey retailers has been discussed for so long that it’s almost surprising they’re still around. Barnes & Noble has closed 10% of its stores over the last five years, despite the fact that its long-time book-selling rival, Borders, is no longer in the picture, and despite relentless pressure from Amazon.com. J.C. Penney is routinely described as being in a “death spiral” and “at death’s door.” As for Sears, when CEO Edward Lampert was speaking to investors this past spring, he offered a brutally honest vision of what’s to come. “Closing stores is going to be part of our future,” he said.

Read More:
10 Things Americans Have Suddenly Stopped Buying
10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On

MONEY online shopping

WATCH: Startup Delivers Marijuana to San Francisco Doorsteps

A startup is trying to brand itself as the Uber of medical marijuana delivery.

MONEY Shopping

The Stunning Sales Figure That Shows Nobody Wants to Grow Up

Businessman carrying backpack and briefcase
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Working professionals seem to be trying really hard to look like they're still in college.

It’s not exactly like Wall Streeters have started wearing hoodies to the office, but it’s in the same ballpark. In a sign that indicates working professionals are embracing the delusion they could still pass for college students, many are skipping the tired old briefcase and turning to the youthful backpack as their go-to office bag of choice.

AdAge and GQ, among others, have noticed the trend, quantified by data from the NPD Group, which has it that for the 12-month period ending in May 2014, backpack sales among adults 18 and over were up 33%. Among adult women, backpack sales were up 48% over that time span, though men still outspend the gals on backpacks annually: $385 million vs. $311 million.

Clearly, one reason that backpack sales are soaring is simply that they’re practical: They can handle your gym gear, sunglasses, snacks, and an ever-increasing amount of gadgets that just wouldn’t fit in even the largest briefcases. Backpacks are also easier to tote around, especially if you’re on a bike or have a long walk.

We also must acknowledge that the rise of work backpacks goes hand in hand with a turn to more casual dress in the workplace, prompted as least partly by all of those scruffy, hoodie-wearing tech workers. By now, the Swiss Army backpack has become a key component of the official Silicon Valley tech uniform, alongside Warby Parkers, skater sneakers, and a general lack of grooming.

Professionals are allowing themselves to strap on the kind of bag they used when they were 15 without embarrassment or totally looking foolish thanks to the introduction of a wide range of packs that are more, well, professional. Tumi lists dozens of understated, black and earth-tone backpacks in the category of being appropriate for business.

What’s more, the backpack’s versatility and youthful cachet sends a certain message, to the wearer if not the entire world. The message is one of adventure and possibility—that you can jump from the boardroom, to a mountain bike, to an impromptu flight to Copenhagen. The backpack says I may work in an office, but I’m not just another drone commuter. I have more going on in my life than any sad, slim briefcase can handle.

Then again, maybe instead it just says you like pretending you’re still in college.

MONEY Shopping

WATCH: Shop This Weekend and Escape the Sales Tax

Several states are suspending sales taxes to encourage shoppers to hit the stores.

MONEY Saving

You’re Giving Away Money By Shopping Before This Weekend

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Getty

No fewer than 15 states offer a remarkably no-hassle way to trim a few percentage points off back-to-school purchases, most with deals starting this Friday.

Every year around this time, states host sales-tax holidays, in which the usual sales tax is waived on a wide range of purchases. In most cases, tax-free purchases are limited to back-to-school items such as computers and traditional school supplies like notebooks, protractors, and pens, but clothing, footwear, and accessories are typically on the table as well.

What’s more, the tax is waived on online purchases as well as sales in traditional brick-and-mortar stores, and there’s no actual requirement that the items being purchased are for back-to-school prep, or even for kids. It would be too hard to police any such requirement, so instead most states simply limit purchases to a flat dollar amount—for instance, any article of clothing priced at $100 or less, typically.

Let’s be honest: The savings represented by these events isn’t all that spectacular. Most participating states have sales tax rates of 4% to 6%, so that’s the extent of the savings. Big whoop, you might say. But when the tax holiday is combined with terrific sale prices—and virtually every retailer has back-to-school promotions going on right about now—the net amounts paid by shoppers can be true bargains. Why not get an extra 5% or whatever off what is already a good deal, on stuff you absolutely need to buy? To do so, all you have to do is wait a few days.

There are those who say that sales tax holidays are gimmicks for exactly the reason hinted at above. The argument is that the holidays don’t promote more spending as much as they encourage shoppers to strategically postpone spending, with no net increase in purchases whatsoever. What’s more, while sales tax holidays play well in terms of politics, critics say they are questionable at best in terms of local economic stimulus, and that they cost states and municipalities millions in much-needed revenues. States such as North Carolina have dropped their annual sales tax holiday tradition because of this argument, though shoppers did still get to take advantage of a “Better Than Tax Free” sales event at a North Carolina outlet mall last weekend.

Gimmick or not, if you need to buy any of the many, many items eligible for tax-free purchase, you might as well wait until Friday, or whenever your state has its sales tax holiday. Failure to do so is tantamount to unnecessarily paying an extra 6% or so.

Resources including Bankrate and the Federal Tax Administrators site list the basic details, and below are the states with sales tax holidays starting this weekend. Check the links for all of the fine print about what is and isn’t included in your neck of the woods.

Alabama: August 1-3, limited to $30 per book, $50 for school supplies, $100 on clothing, and $750 on computers

Florida: August 1-3, limited to school supplies of $15 or less, $100 per clothing article, and $750 for computers and accessories

Georgia: August 1-2, limited to $20 school supplies, clothing priced at $100 or less, and computers capped at $1,000

Iowa: August 1-2, limited to footwear and clothing priced up to $100

Louisiana: August 1-2, sales tax is waived on purchases of all items for personal (rather than business) use, priced up to $2,500.

Missouri: August 1-3, limited to school supplies of $50 per purchase, clothing and footwear priced up to $100 each, computer software up to $350, and computers or accessories up to $3,500

New Mexico: August 1-3, limited to school supplies up to $30 per item, clothing and footwear up to $100, computer hardware up to $500, and computers up to $1,000

Oklahoma: August 1-3, limited to clothing and footwear up to $100 per item

South Carolina: August 1-3, with sales tax exemptions for all clothing, footwear, school supplies, computers and electronics, college dorm supplies like pillows, blankets, and shower curtains, and even delivery charges on all of the above

Tennessee: August 1-3, limited to clothing, footwear, school and art supplies priced up to $100 each, as well as computers up to $1,500

Virginia: August 1-3, limited to school supplies up to $20, and clothing and footwear of $100 or less per item

And here are a few more states offering tax holidays a little later this summer:

Texas: August 8-10, limited to clothing, footwear, backpacks, and school supplies up to $100

Maryland: August 10-16, limited to clothing and footwear priced up to $100

Connecticut: August 17-23, limited to $300 on clothing and footwear

Massachusetts: Lawmakers in the Bay State have promised shoppers will get a tax-free weekend sometime in August, but they haven’t gotten around to settling on a date yet.

MONEY Shopping

WATCH: Dollar Tree Buys Family Dollar for a Lot More Than $1

Dollar Tree will acquire rival Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, creating the largest discount retail chain in the U.S.

MONEY Shopping

Why We Spend So Many of Our Dollars at Dollar Stores

99 cent sign
joeysworld.com—Alamy

And why the $8.5 billion Dollar Tree–Family Dollar deal is probably a sign that the dollar store's heyday is coming to an end

The dollar store has been one of the great success stories of the recession era, with chains such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General posting record sales figures, broad expansions, and soaring stock prices over the past half-dozen or so years. Now that Dollar Tree is purchasing Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, it appears as if the era of rampant dollar store growth is plateauing, even while many household finances remain pinched and dollar store shopping continues to be popular.

How did we get to the point where such a colossal merger would make sense? Here’s a look back at the recent evolution of the dollar store, with a particular focus on why many shoppers have come to view them as handy neighborhood general stores—and not just for cheap stuff.

The Great Recession destroyed shopper budgets. In the late ’00s, the housing bubble burst, the stock market crashed, and the jobs market took an ugly turn. All of the factors combined meant that the free-spending habits developed by consumers in the preceding years would have to be broken and replaced by new strategies to live cheaply. The much-heralded demise of conspicuous consumption spelled trouble for products like GM’s Hummer, but it also meant boom times for low-price retailers—dollar stores especially.

With little money to spend, especially if they’d cut up their credit cards as many had in a move to a cash-only existence, consumers stretched what few dollars they had at dollar stores. Consequently, dollar stores flourished. Dollar General doubled its store locations in the first decade of the millennium, for instance. According to one study, by 2011 there were more dollar stores than drugstores in the U.S.

Dollar stores pushed one-stop shopping. Shrinking American household budgets helped the rise of dollar stores. So did the broad campaign by dollar stores to push beyond the idea that they were good only for junky throwaway trinkets, off-brand canned goods, and anything else that had grown stale on the shelves of mainstream stores.

Among the goods shoppers started seeing more of at dollar stores are groceries, home decorating items, and even beer and wine. In some cases, dollar store offerings have been celebrated as surprisingly chic: A New York Times columnist wrote about his adventures decorating his apartment with dollar store purchases, while the 99-Cent Chef developed a following based on recipes that use ingredients purchased only at 99¢ Only stores. According to one survey from 2010, 18% of shoppers said that they were buying food and drinks for holiday parties at dollar stores.

Chances are, they were also buying wrapping paper and some stocking stuffers at dollar stores too. And that’s the point. When a shopper can buy fresh bread, produce, a gallon of milk, birthday cards, laundry detergent, shampoo, Christmas presents, and maybe a few bottles of cheap Chardonnay at the dollar store, there’s less need to hit the supermarket, liquor store, drugstore, or big box retailer. Dollar stores have been actively promoting themselves as one-stop shopping options with almost anything you need to buy—and with more locations and a smaller, easier, more manageable layout than, say, the nearest Walmart.

They’re not as cheap as you think. While there are undoubtedly some great bargains at dollar stores, shopping experts also advise against the purchasing of certain items there. Like, say, electronics and pots and pans. If you’re surprised that dollar stores even have such items, bear in mind that oftentimes, not everything in a dollar store is priced at $1. Dollar Tree has stuck to $1 pricing for everything in its stores, but Family Dollar and Dollar General don’t bother abiding by the $1 price rule. Among other items, the Dollar General website lists a Craig Android tablet for $78 more than $1.

Dollar stores employ the age-old strategy of drawing shoppers in with bargains and hoping that they grab some other (non-bargain) goods while they’re at it. A Family Dollar spokesperson told the New York Times columnist mentioned above that low-priced cleaning supplies were “almost like the gateway product” for dollar store shoppers. “It starts with cleaning goods,” he said, “and ends up with a bedspread.”

Or perhaps a tablet, or a bottle of wine—which will also cost more than a buck ($2.99 and up, usually, when available.) Shopping centers have been embracing dollar stores in their slight turn upscale because they’re able to attract slightly better-off clientele. But budget-conscious consumers must be careful: In many cases, dollar stores charger higher prices per unit than what’s to be found at Walmart, Target, or a warehouse club such as Costco. It’s just that dollar stores seem like bargains because the items are low quality or they come in exceptionally small sizes. Just last week, a controversy was stirred up when Dollar General offered a special on diapers in “all counts and sizes” that Walmart and Target failed to match, even though they have price matching policies. Why? Because Walmart and Target offer diapers in far bigger sizes than what’s available at dollar stores.

Speaking of Walmart and Target, they’ve slowly been rolling out a counteroffensive to dollar stores by way of smaller retail locations, often in the densely populated urban hubs where dollar stores are ubiquitous. Supermarkets have entered the battle too, with stores that are half the size of the usual grocery shop. The smaller size means these stores can easily fit in a strip mall or city block, making them a lot more convenient and practical for millions of shoppers.

So now we have a situation in which dollar stores do what Walmart and Target do best by stocking groceries, electronics, and a little bit of everything, and Walmart, Target, and grocery chains do what dollar stores do best by offering small, convenient locations (and more of them) and many bargain-priced goods. The retail lines are blurring. Every player wants to be the convenient, one-stop shopping destination for shoppers, and it has gotten much tougher for a dollar store or any retailer to stand out. When it’s hard to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and it’s hard to grow, it’s probably time to combine with someone in the same boat to help you compete. That’s what seems to be happening with Dollar Tree’s purchase of Family Dollar.

MONEY

10 Things Americans Have Suddenly Stopped Buying

Popping bubble gum
Ross Culshaw—Getty Images

America is just not the clean-shaven, gun-buying, soda-drinking, Chef Boyardee-eating place it used to be

For a variety of reasons—including but not limited to increased health consciousness, the harried pace of modern-day life, and plain old shifting consumer preferences,—Americans have scaled back on purchases of many items, sometimes drastically so. Here’s a top 10 list of things we’re not buying anymore, at least not anywhere near as frequently as we used to.

Cereal
In one recent four-week period, cereal sales were down 7%, and cereal giant Kellogg’s sales decreased 10%. The reasons for cereal’s declining dominance at the breakfast table are many. As the Wall Street Journal reported, consumers are more apt nowadays to turn to yogurt or fast food in the morning, and they’re less likely to have time to eat breakfast at home at all—not even if it’s a simple bowl of cereal.

Consumers also want their breakfast to pack more punch, protein-wise. “We are competing with quick-serve restaurants more, but the bigger driver is that people want more protein,” Kellogg CEO John Bryant told the Journal. It’s no coincidence that milk sales have been falling alongside cereal, with cow’s milk struggling especially due to the rise of alternatives like soy and almond milk. (Sales of yet another breakfast-at-home staple, orange juice, have plummeted 40% since the late 1990s.)

To try to put cereal back on the spoon of more breakfast eaters, food makers have been resorting to all manner of gimmicks, including the promoting of new higher-protein cereals, as well as the idea that cereal is a great late-night snack rather than just a breakfast-time basic.

Soda
The crash of soda—diet soda in particular—has been years in the making, with consumers increasingly turning to energy drinks, flavored water, and other beverages instead of the old carbonated caffeine drink of choice. The latest Wall Street report from Coca-Cola showed that the soda giant missed estimates, partly because sales of Diet Coke in North America fell in the “mid-single digits.”

(MORE: 10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On)

While a lot of soda’s slump can be attributed to shifting consumer preferences—more organic, less sugar—the broader war on soda involving taxes and big-beverage bans must factor in too. And if First Lady Michelle Obama has any say in things, the decline of soda is a trend that’ll continue: Her ongoing “Drink Up” campaign encourages kids to consume more water—and, consequently, less soda.

Gum
Likely due to heightened competition from mints and candies, chewing gum sales have dipped 11% over the past four years, the Associated Press reported. The editorial board of the News Tribune of Washington state, for one, weighed in that it is wonderful that gum sales are down in the gutter, sniffing, “Gum-chewing doesn’t do us any favors, making us look like cows chewing our cud. For humans, that’s not a good look.”

Guns
Gun sales have been booming in recent years, with sales periodically juiced when perceived anti-gun politicians enter office or a high-profile mass shooting takes place, prompting consumers to seek guns for protection—or just out of fear they won’t be able to buy them in the future because tougher gun regulations might be passed.

Lately, however, gun sales have fallen, sometimes sharply. The big reasons why this is so seem to be that there’s little in the way of likely gun control for gun enthusiasts to motivate new purchases, and also that everyone who has wanted to buy a gun in the past couple of years has already bought one (or seven). In the first quarter of 2014, the guns-and-ammo-focused Sportsman’s Warehouse retail chain saw comparable stores sales drop 18%, while gun sales at Cabela’s fell 22%.

But a little perspective is necessary. While guns sales and background checks are down compared to the past couple of years, they remain far above the levels of the early ’00s. As gun industry experts have put it, the decline probably just represents a “returning to normal” for gun sales—which aren’t as strong as they once were, but are still very strong nonetheless.

Cupcakes
Well, it looks like many of us at least have stopped buying the pricey “gourmet” variety of cupcakes. That’s the conclusion to be drawn with the collapse of Crumbs, the 65-store chain that shut down abruptly in early July. The news was widely interpreted as a sign that the gourmet cupcake trend is officially dead.

Chef Boyardee
ConAgra recently issued a warning to Wall Street that its consumer food volume experienced a 7% decline, and that it faced “continued profit challenges” due to some of its flagging, tired products—in particular, Chef Boyardee, the 86-year-old canned pasta brand.

Golf Gear
It’s not surprising that going hand in hand with fewer people playing golf, there are also fewer golf purchases being rung up at sporting goods store registers. The most notable eye-opener occurred this past spring, when Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that its golf equipment sales were down around 10%, at the same time the average driver was selling at a price of 16% less.

(MORE: Could Rory McIlroy Be Golf’s Long-Awaited Savior?)

Razors
Beard-loving hipsters were blamed for the decline in razor sales last summer, and in 2014, razor giants like Procter and Gamble (owner of Gillette) has continued to blame poor sales on the trendiness of beards. Everything from the shaggy beards worn by the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, to month-long no-shave “challenges” like Movember and Decembeard have been cited as reasons why guys have scaled back on razor purchases. In response, marketers have introduced even more varieties of new high-tech razors, while also pushing the concept of “manscaping,” with special razors designed just for the task. The hope is that even if men aren’t shaving their faces, they might still shave one or several other parts of their bodies.

Bread
According to one survey, 56% of American shoppers said they are cutting back on white bread. White bread was surpassed in sales by wheat bread sometime around 2006, but in recent years the gluten-free trend has hurt sales of all breads. Sales are even down in European countries like baguette-loving France, where consumption is down 10%. In American restaurants, meanwhile, there’s an epidemic of free bread disappearing from tables, as fewer owners want to bear the expense of putting out free rolls and other breads that no one is going to eat.

Convertibles
The fun-loving, wind-in-your-hair thrill of driving in a convertible just hasn’t been enough to keep consumers buying the classic ragtop in strong numbers. Businessweek noted that convertible sales have fallen 44% since 2004, and automakers have been significantly scaling back the number of models that are even offered in convertible form. Apparently, too many consumers see convertibles as impractical, and/or not worth the $5,000 or so premium one must pay compared to the regular model.

Data recently released from Experian Automotive indicates that the convertible is largely now a toy purchased by the rich. Nearly 1 in 5 convertible buyers have household incomes of at least $175,000 (compared to 11% of buyers of all cars), and 12% of convertible buyers own homes valued over $1 million (compared to 4% of buyers of other cars). For what it’s worth, convertible drivers are also better educated than the average car owner (50% of convertible buyers have at least a bachelor’s degree, versus 38% overall), and nearly one-quarter of all convertibles are now purchased in three sunny states with ample coastlines: California, Florida, and Texas.

Related:

10 Things Millennials Won’t Spend Money On

MONEY Shopping

CONTEST: Are You America’s Smartest Shopper?

All You America's Smartest Shopper presented by Samsung

MONEY's fellow Time Inc. publication, ALL YOU, is launching a contest to track down the country's savviest shopper, sponsored by Samsung. Here's how to enter.

Visit allyou.com/smartestshopper to share your best shopping tip and a photo that illustrates that tip. You can also enter on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #aysmartestshopper. Entries will be accepted from July 25th through August 15th.

ALL YOU will select 25 semifinalists who will be given a new Samsung Galaxy S5 to create a 60-second video that explains why they deserve the title of America’s Smartest Shopper. Those entries will be winnowed down to 10 finalists; ALL YOU, voters, and a panel of saving-savvy judges will determine the winner. The big reveal will air live on NBC’s TODAY show later this fall.

How to vote

Visit allyou.com/smartestshopper from September 17th until October 3rd to cast your vote.

The prizes

The winner will take home $1,000, plus a Samsung prize package that includes a Tab S 8.4 Wifi, Gear Fit and Smart TV.

Two runners-up will each receive $50, plus Tab S 8.4 Wifi, Gear Fit and Samsung Level headphones.

All three finalists will receive a trip with a guest to New York City, where the winner will be revealed live on NBC’s TODAY Show.

 

MONEY Saving

Verizon Smart Rewards, and Dumb Rewards Programs You Should Skip

140724_EM_VERIZON
iStock

Verizon's new rewards program, which requires users to receive targeted ads if they want to get any benefits, is a case study for why you shouldn't sign up for every reward program on the planet

On July 24, Verizon rolls out a new program called Smart Rewards nationally. All customers who sign up as members—and, more important, who also enroll with Verizon Selects, a targeted advertising program—accumulate points for doing things like registering for paperless billing, autopaying their bills, and connecting a tablet to their account. Points are redeemable for things like retailer gift cards and perks such as the ability to “save up to 40% on brand name merchandise,” according to Verizon.

By now, we should all be well aware that there’s a tradeoff for membership in any such rewards program. Namely, that rewards come at the cost of giving up our data and privacy. Verizon’s program, while not all that different from many others in the marketplace, stands out because it’s especially invasive, allowing the bots to track members’ locations, web browsing history, and app usage, among other things. What’s more, the program’s rewards, which mainly consist of discounts on merchandise rather than cash back or discounts on, I don’t know, say, … your monthly Verizon bill! seem pretty lame.

So are the program’s meager benefits worth the sacrifice? We asked a few rewards program experts for their thoughts on the topic, and on the state of rewards programs in general. Here are some key takeaways consumers should think about before absentmindedly signing up for any old rewards program.

Rewards programs aren’t designed to reward you. “What’s most important to understand is that these are marketing programs,” said Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who covers loyalty and reward programs. “They’re just another form of advertising. They’re designed to get you to spend more.”

That happens either when you spend more often because you’re a member, or you buy things you wouldn’t have after they’re brought to your attention—again because you’re a member—or both.

Forget the garbage about getting only ads you want. To consumers accustomed to being spammed with irrelevant ads, the idea of receiving deals and offers specifically tailored to your interests sounds appealing. While some targeted advertising efforts indeed seem, well, on target, the reality is that once the door is open, “you’re going to be pestered by all kinds of marketers,” said Blyskal. “And you’ll have no idea how exactly these companies and marketers got your information.” The result is that you’re likely to be bombarded by ads for products and services that you weren’t shopping for, and/or that you have no interest in whatsoever. And the result of that is increased annoyance, increased spending on stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have bought, or both.

“If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls,” said Louis Ramirez, senior editor at dealnews. “You can opt out of some of these, but I’m sure it won’t be an easy task.” (A representative from Verizon reached out to clarify that Smart Rewards and Verizon Selections are entirely optional for customers, and “that it’s easy for customers to change their privacy choices at any time, and we encourage them to review and consider them on a regular basis.”)

The rewards are rarely as rewarding as promised. “Every program has more than one catch,” said Ramirez. Among the many catches are that the rewards are harder to use or less valuable than they seem at first glance, and that the “rewards” come in the form of discounts or “special offers” that are readily available elsewhere on the web, without the requirement of joining a rewards program. Verizon Smart Rewards, for instance, promises that members who are redeeming rewards points for discounts on merchandise are guaranteed that they’ll get the lowest price available; if not, they’re eligible for a refund of both the points used and the price difference on the item.

“They’ll say they have the guaranteed lowest price, but it’s up to you to shop around and make sure that’s true,” said Blyskal. “You’ve got to do the work. And we all know that you won’t do the work. As soon as you trust a marketing company, you’ve lost half the battle.”

It’s not easy to correlate points to dollars. The best rewards programs give members easily understood discounts or cash back on items that they’d be buying anyway. When you get a CVS receipt giving a flat $5 off your next $25 purchase, that’s a solid, comprehensible value. (There may be some other hassles involved, including the fact that the rewards may expire quickly, and that you’re apt to wind up buying something you wouldn’t have just because you’re trying to use the coupon, but those are different issues.) Likewise, consumers like the simple value provided by supermarket rewards programs that give discounts on gas based on the amount spent in stores. (Though this structure can also result in customers buying stuff they didn’t need in order to secure the discount.)

What’s truly frustrating are the rewards of undeterminable value because there are so many unknowns involved. Is $5 off a $25 gift card at a retailer you think of as a ripoff worth jumping at? Is 40% off a blender that you had no inkling to buy before seeing the offer a good deal? As Ramirez pointed out, “Verizon states in their FAQ that every point you earn has no monetary value.” Sometimes, the reward structure is so complicated that it may be best to not even bother wading into the fine print. “Sometimes there’s a fee involved to be a member, or for some other part of the program,” said Blyskal. “The benefits are hard to measure.”

“Sorting the worthwhile from the worthless can require time, effort, and an exhaustive (and expensive) amount of trial and error,” wrote Brad Wilson of BradsDeals.com in a post about rewards programs. “No one wants to toil away in a customer loyalty program that doesn’t effectively reward their loyalty.”

Working the system is harder than you think. “There are people out there who are really good at working these programs,” said Blyskal. “They look at them like games, like bingo.”

Being good at this game takes up a lot of time. In fact, some reformed extreme couponers (remember that craze?) have said that maximizing every little offer in order to snag every freebie or deal under the sun is, in fact, “a waste of time.”

To figure out which of the thousands of rewards programs out there are worthy of your membership, it’s necessary to look at oneself—and one’s spending inclinations—in the mirror. If you’re the type who wants to win at everything, and who therefore may be tempted to nonsensically spend hundreds of dollars in order to “win” $25 off, tons of rewards programs would absolutely love to have you as a member. Likewise, it may seem fun to regularly be presented with tempting random offers, but if you’re the type who frequently bites on such deals, rewards programs and targeted advertising schemes could be bad news for your bank account.

The key is to make sure that you’re working the rewards program, and not the other way around. Sign up for rewards programs when the benefits pay off in a clear and practical way, with rewards for things you would be buying even if the program didn’t exist. Don’t go overboard. Don’t buy all sorts of things you don’t need. Understand that with every rewards program, there’s a tradeoff for every little reward you receive. And understand that however rewarding the programs seem to you, they’re far more rewarding for the retailers that run them.

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